Mae M. Ngai, a professor of history and Asian-American studies at Columbia, is the author of “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.”
IN Las Vegas yesterday, President Obama made it clear that an overhaul of America’s immigration laws was his top domestic priority. He expressed cautious support for a bipartisan plan by eight senators that would create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in exchange for tougher border enforcement, employment checks and temporary work visas for farmworkers and highly skilled engineers and scientists.
Many critical details are still missing, but the general framework is notable for its familiarity. Variations on all of these measures have been tried before, with mixed results. Legalization of the undocumented is humane and practical, but the proposals for controlling future immigration are almost certain to fail.
The promise to “secure the border” made for good politics even before 1986, when Congress passed the last comprehensive immigration reform bill. In the last quarter-century we have spent approximately $187 billion on enforcement, mostly along the United States-Mexico border. This included a ninefold increase in the size of the Border Patrol since 1980; nearly 700 miles of fencing; and the deployment of surveillance drones and motion sensors. These efforts reduced but did not stop unauthorized entries (only the Great Recession was able to reduce the net flow of Mexican illegal immigration to effectively zero). In fact, the hazards of crossing an increasingly militarized border led many Mexican workers to settle permanently in the United States....